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The free fediverses should make it easier to move between (and create) instances

Part 5 of Strategies for the free fediverses

Brown cardboard moving boxes on the floor, with a person beneath them whose feet are sticking out

Part 5 of Strategies for the free fediverses.  As the first post in the series discusses, the "free fediverses" are regions of the fediverse that reject Meta and surveillance capitalism, and these strategies position the free fediverses as an alternative to Threads and "Meta's fediverses".

Join the discussion in the fediverse:
on Mastodon and on Lemmy!

There's likely to be a lot of moving between instances as people and instances sort themselves out into the free fediverses and Meta's fediverses. Additional waves are likely as well: if and when Threads turns on federation for hate accounts, whenever Meta-related scandals and abuses get publicity, and perhaps as concentric federations of instances emerge in the free fediverses.

Unfortunately, moving accounts on the fediverse today isn't a particularly good experience today.  To start with, unless you already know what instance you want to go it, it's not easy to choose one.  Fedi Garden, the Join the Fediverse wiki, and other sites have useful curated lists of instances, you can look up wither an instance federates with Meta on, and instance catalogs like The Bad Space and Fediseer have information about instances that are blocked or limited ... but even if you know about all those sites, it's a lot of work. (July 2023's How to choose the right Mastodon instance? has more on this.)

And once you've picked a new instance, Erin Kissane describes in Notes From a Mastodon Migration, it can be a messy and "hair-raising" process to move your account over. Mastodon's account migration documentation is very limited; Cutie City's Migrating Server guide and FediTips' Transferring your Mastodon account to another server are much more helpful, but relatively few people know about them.

To be fair, when it works, "account migration" in the fediverse today is a lot better than nothing. On Mastodon, for example, most of your followers will transfer automatically, and you can export and then re-import your follows, bookmarks, mutes and blocks. That's good! Software like Firefish and Catodon also allows post migration, which is even better. But Mastodon doesn't: none of your posts are moved. And no matter what software you're using, followers may disappear, and people who have "approve followers" turned on will need to re-approve your requests. Not only that, it doesn't always work. I've seen moves go very badly, with people losing most or all of their connections.

So now's a good time to for the free fediverses to make the experience better.1

Even without software improvements, good documentation and support for helping people choose instances and get started  – or want help tworking through or troubleshooting problems they run into – can help a lot.  A well-curated wiki or website with the kinds of links I've included here is a good first step. Onboarding sessions and "office hours" – as videoconferences, conference calls, or as discussions on a hashtag – could be a very helpful complement.  So could one or more hashtags, Lemmy communities, and KBin magazines to provide support – or a forum, once forum software like NodeBB integrates with the fediverse.

The newcomer experience doesn't have to stop when people set up an account. There's a lot of value in helping people find out about mysterious-but-useful settings, resources like FediTips, and suggestions for who to follow that go beyond the mostly-white mostly-male lists that are the norm in today's fediverse. The onboarding sessions, office hours, hashtags, communities, magazines, and forums from the previous paragraph could handle this as well. Versions of the Mastodon Migration account that have a broader scope (not just Mastodon) and are run by an intersectional teams and/or focus on specific marginalized perspectives2 could also be very useful.

And the software can be improved! It would be great if the underlying platforms do a better job at this. Mastodon CTO Renaud Chaput recently said it's on their roadmap, which is encouraging;3 that said, it doesn't currently appear in the in-progress, planned, or exploring sections of the public roadmap, so we'll see how long it takes. Fortunately, software improvements don't have to be part of the platform. Tokyo Outsider's Mastodon Content Mover, while currently still at an early stage, highlights the progress a single independent enthusiast can make.  

Longer term, there's a lot more that can be done here – Jonathan Eggers' Account portability in the social web is a good overview of some of the potential directions, and Evan Prodromou's notes for a SWICG portability report are also useful. That said, people who want to move now can't wait for the long-term solution, so this is a good area to make progress on in the short term as well.

It should be easier to create, customize, and connect instances too!

The "networked communities" and "social archipelago" views of the fediverse are best served by having lots of smaller instances, with different norms, cultuers, and vibes. Having lots of smaller instances (including single-person instances) is also a great way to distribute power. Today, hosting providers make it easy for even people without technical skills to get an instance up and going, which is great; and most software platforms have instructions for how to self-host for people how have (or willing to learn) basic UNIX sysadmin skills. That's good! That said, there's a lot of room for improvement.

For one thing, the instructions often only cover the mechanics of getting the instance set up and leave out key aspects of actually getting to a usable system. For example:

  • Mastodon's default setup will accept all federation requests, and doesn't install any blocklists, so new instances are by default left open to harassment from nazis, transphobes, or anybody else.  And Mastodon's installation currently doesn't enable authorized fetch, which needs to be turned on to make blocking more effective.
  • Many Lemmy admins find Fediseer indispensible for helping to manage spam attacks, but good luck finding any mention of Fediseer on the Lemmy install page.
  • Wordpress' fediverse plugin lets you post, but not reply to other posts – you'll need to install another plugin for that.
  • Small instances often rely on relays to improve connections to the broader fediverse.  Which relays to use?

As with moving between instances, there's a lot of progress possible even without software improvements. A curated, easily-findable wiki or site with detailed writeups like How to Set Up ActivityPub for Self-Hosted WordPress Sites as well as video tutorials is a good first step. Many people prefer video tutorials, so tMany platforms' developers are already helpful to new admins (especially if you know the right chat rooms to join), but additional upport mechanisms like hashtags, Lemmy communities, office hours could also be useful.

That said, straightforward software improvements – changing the defaults, giving people an option of allow-list federation or uploading an initial blocklist – could be quite helpful. And hosting providers today typically only provide limited options as to which platforms can be installed and how to configure it. While this is certainly understandable, it's also another area where progress needs to be made.

Stay tuned for more!

The next installments in Strategies for the free fediverses will discuss working with people in Meta's fediverse and other social networks who share the free fediverses' value – and "transitive defederation": defederating instances that federate with Threads as well as threads.  Transitive defederation's a controversial topic and I'm not necessarily recommending it – but I am recommending considering it, so I expect . And there's a long way to go after that, so stay tuned!


1 If Meta's fediverses want to have any chance of competing with Threads longer term, now's also a good time for them to make the experience better, but who knows whether that'll happen.

2 and unlike the current Mastodon Migration account, avoids posts that reinforce Mastodon's reputation as a hostile place for people of color.

3 As I've noted in the past, since Mastodon's software is controlled by Mastodon gGmbH (which also runs by far the largest instance, and one that new arrivals are now signed up for by default) there's been very little incentive to invest in making it easier for people to leave. Hopefully, though, Chaput's statement signals a change in attitude!

Image Credit

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